How to Write a Great Query Letter: Case Study
Come on up, Abby. Now, I'm gonna show you Abby's query letter draft and there's a lot of words on the screen. (laughs) The idea's not to read these words. What I want to show you is this, query letter that she wrote. Way too long, way too many words and these are my comments on it in blue. That's just the first two paragraphs. That's the second part. There're a lot of comments here. And the scorecard that I gave Abby was, does she have a killer opening line? No. Is her paragraph on the essence of the book great? No, not clear. Does she have a very short author bio? She did but it was too defensive and it was a little rambling. She had her genre and word count in there. She had excellent comp titles, because you had that, the one I said wrong before, the book that you,
Yeah, that was great. And then why this agent didn't matter. So you can see that in Abby's first effort she didn't do so well. (laughs) What we did was, took what I, what we're gonna look at those first...
two. Sorry about that, that's a extra slide in there. So what we're gonna do is just look at these first couple of lines where I said her first line was a little vague and her core of the query was just a little fuzzy or unclear. Can you read this one or do you want to standup and read this one?
No I think I can read this one right here.
Okay, so we're gonna have Abby read this, so you can hear in her voice. This was here first draft of her query letter.
"13-year old Bernadette Thorp isn't asking for much. It's not like she wants to be popular or good at sports or the smartest kid in the class or anything. She just wants to be invisible." Is that where you want me to stop?
Read the whole thing.
"Not actually invisible, like in a comic book, but invisible as in not noticed. Then she wouldn't have to be embarrassed by her father's odd preferences for top hats and formal speech, or his penchant for hoarding books. And she would prefer not to be labeled as the freak who lives in the town's creepiest house."
Okay, so thank you for reading that. That's okay, right? I mean it's okay, it's like okay. But what I saw in this is why is the very first thing, this girls age? Like that's prime real estate and, yes, it's important to get the genre down and set it, but like why spend so much time on that? And "isn't asking for much" means nothing. It's just totally vague. It doesn't paint a picture. It doesn't draw us in. It's just this sort of throw-away thing. So the agent who is reading this or the 19-year old who's reading this, or whoever's reading this, they're already done. By the time they get to the end of the first sentence, they're probably already done. They might scan the rest, but they probably already have it in their head, this person doesn't know how to write an awesome book. They don't know how to present themselves. They haven't done their homework. All the pews are not hitting for them, so we've got to clean that up. I do like Abby's line that, "it's not like she wants to be popular or good at sports or the smartest kid in class." I like that 'cause like we're starting to see that, right? You can see that. And then the big thing for me, there was this word, invisible. What I immediately thought when I read this was actually Harry Potter. I thought the invisibility cloak, like this is a character who literally wants to be invisible. Why wouldn't I think that? She wants to be invisible. So I went back to Abby and I said, you gotta redo this, and that is, in fact, what she did. She worked on making it more specific. That's always what you want, more specific and more evocative of whatever the thing you're writing about is. So we're gonna see Abby's version two and let's hear her read this one out loud.
"Bernadette Thorpe doesn't want to be popular or good at sports or the smartest kid in class or anything. She just wants to be an ordinary middle school kid, but instead she's busy trying to her her no-so-normal life. But how do you hade a father that's a book-hoarding weirdo who looks like he stepped out of Chapter in her American History book-- with his top hats, formal speech, and his total lack of modern technology? Or hide your creepy, gothic house that looks it comes straight out of a scary movie? She can barely hide her embarrassment, let alone her whole life."
Okay, so way better, right? Now we're starting to get a picture of this girl. The dad in the top hat, the creepy house. She's trying so hard to be ordinary, she's trying to hide something. Like we're really starting to get a sense of this. It's much better, but the truth of the matter is Abby and I went back and forth five times--
Sorry, six times after that. (audience laughs) (Jennie laughs) So I just want to talk a little bit about what that process was like for you, because I just, I was nitpicking every word, every word, every word, and she was sort of like, "Enough already!" And what I was saying is this, really think of this as, it's almost like writing a poem where every word really matters, every word really counts. And you're trying to be, cut through the noise of people who haven't done this work, because I can promise you that most people haven't done this work. Just by being in this class, just by sitting here listening, you're like in the 95th percentile already of smarts about how to do this. You really are. I have seen a million query letters. They're usually what Abby's first one was, if not way worse. So when you're doing this, you're circling around, being professional, being strategic, and a bonus that we talked about was, it really helps you understand your story, right?
It does, it does.
So what was that like?
Well, it really sort of helped me refocus the meat of the whole story, because sometimes I think as you write, you can't help but lose a little bit of the thread somewhere along the way, so having to go back and pull it all together, in such a very, you know, concise paragraph, I mean, literally, paragraph or two, really helps you nail down what the essence of your story is. And so that was, I found, very helpful for the whole revision process too, because you know what you're looking for now when you get to the end. Can I also point out that I totally self-edited this part, (Jennie laughs) because Jane Austen is not American history, so I'd like to throw that out.
Or while you're sitting here right now!
I know, I'm sitting here and I have it on camera. I took out American history.
That's so interesting. See, every word, right? So now we're on draft seven.
Yeah. (audience laughs)
So, yeah, this idea of stepping back and thinking about your work as it's gonna be received in the marketplace. Who's gonna read it? Why will they care? What else are they reading? What exactly is it? That's that strategic work of placing your book in the universe and that's what pitching is all about, is showing you didn't just write a book, you're not just a person that wrote a book. You're a person that wrote a book and knows how it's gonna sell and knows what that universe is like, and that's what you're trying to convey. So I'm gonna show you version five and we'll let Abby read it and talk about what's so awesome, but try to just listen to how much better this is than the version that was, "13-year old Bernadette," what was it? I can't even remember now, it's so forgettable. Some forgettable thing. (Jennie laughs) All right, let's hear this one.
Even I forgot it and I wrote it. "Most middle school kids try and cover-up the fact that they forgot their homework, but Bernadette Thorpe is busy trying to cover-up her whole life. How do you hide a father who's a book hoarding weirdo and looks like he just stepped out of a history textbook--with his tops hats, moth-eaten vocabulary, and a belief that written letters are a better form of communication than cell phones? And how do you hide your creepy gothic house, a housekeeper who thinks dressing a chicken means putting clothes on your food, and a gardener who thinks the best solution to all lawn care problems is to bring in the elephants? Bernadette can barely hide her embarrassment, let alone an elephant."
Yay! How about a round of applause? (audience applauds) So does anybody want to say something about this that is awesome, that stands out to them? Anybody want to take a stab? At what's great? I can say what's great but I want you guys to see what's great. Yes?
The opening line is amazing compared to the other ones. I mean it's just so descriptive. It's really direct and it makes you want more because there's a lot of questions.
Yes. So remember we talked about a killer opening line. It is, it's just a killer opening line. Now we've got, "Most middle school kids try to cover-up the fact that they forgot their homework." That phrase alone tells me this writer knows her audience. She knows them inside and out. She knows what they worry about. She knows how they lie. Like that's telling me a lot. And then, "but Bernadette Thorpe is busy trying to cover-up her whole life." I love the cover-up, cover-up, right? It's like snappy. It's showing me this is a writer who knows how to write. It's showing me this is a writer who's got voice. There're so many things that that opening line shows me, and now, if I'm that first reader, I'm gonna read the second line. And honestly, if you don't have that killer first line, you're not gonna get to the second line, you're just not. They've got 300 queries to read this afternoon, you know. I love that. Is there anyone else who wants to say something? Yes?
I really enjoyed the wordplay with the elephant in the room and it being hard to actually hide it, so I enjoyed that part. That part made me smile.
Right? Isn't that fun? Remember before it's just a girl who's got a secret she's trying hide, and you're like, all right, but now you're like, wait, what? She's trying to hide an elephant? Like that, you can feel that. You can see that. It's great and it's visceral, it's really just on the page. There's a lot of other places where Abby does that really well. "a book hoarding weirdo" Like that's just what a middle-school kid would say and that comes straight from the worksheet. Do you remember? Where the ideal reader, what she was going to say to her friend after she read the book was,
"My father's such a weirdo too," sort of thing.
"My father's such a weirdo too." So she's getting in exactly who that reader is and what that pain for that reader is, I mean the middle-school kid, everybody's embarrassed by their dad in middle school, so it's perfect. I love that. And all these great details about, there was a draft where she had the great line with the elephant, but the housekeeper line was kind of vague, so it was like they both gotta be great. So, yeah this is just a fantastic example of that opening of the query and why, this is a question that I think is really important. Why are you so good at getting middle school?
I think it just has to do with the fact that I taught those ninth graders so many years, and I don't know I can just close my eyes and somehow transport myself back to middle school in my head. Something about that experience just stuck with me. I mean I'm sorry, middle school scars everyone. Even if you love middle school, there's something totally scaring about it. It's just something about that age speaks to me. And those kids just, they have my empathy, so. (Ally laughs)
So this all really comes across and if I'm an agent or a publisher looking to take on a writer, this is, you said it made you smile. You said it got the gears turning in your head, like you're curious. This is gonna be a book that you want to look at. And remember I said the whole job of the query is to get that agent to request more pages. So this agent, whoever this goes to, is gonna say, "Okay, yeah, show me that." And what they're gonna be looking for is does she deliver? Are her pages as good as this query? Is the story as good? Is the voice as good? It's all gotta be there, but if your query doesn't prove that you've got it, you're not even gonna get that opportunity. So this one is pitch perfect! Yay, Abby! She worked very hard on that. (audience applauds)
So what I'd like to do is we have a little time and I would love for people here in the studio to share with me their core of the query, which is that opening line, maybe the next line if you're brave enough, and we'll rip it apart and see what we think. Is anyone willing to share? Oh, come on somebody. A brave soul is raising her hand! It's so fine, you gotta have a thick skin and also a big heart to be a writer, right? (Jennie laughs)
"What if you found a painting of yourself in a trunk locked away and forgotten for over 20 years? Lotus has never had a real family, but the hunt for the painting's artist might just lead her to the family she's always wanted."
Wow, that was great! Okay, can you read it again a little more slowly?
No, it's okay. Take a deep breath, it's so fine. Okay.
"What if you found a painting of yourself in a trunk locked away and forgotten for over 20 years? Lotus has never had a real family, but the hunt for the painting's artist might just lead her to the family she's always wanted."
Okay, so this is fantastic. You open with this great hook, this great line. Like, what if you did find a painting? That's excellent and you give us a sense of where it's gonna go. That's really good, but one thing that catches me is it sounds like YA, Young Adult, because it sounds like a kid looking for their parents, but then you say 20 years, it's been hidden away for 20 years, so my brain is already like, wait, I don't get it. This is an adult who find, is it an adult?
Yeah, well, she's 18, 19, so just barely adult I'd say.
Okay, okay, so it's been her whole life that it's been locked away. So the thing that I would work on is getting in somehow the context of how old this character is. You don't want to belabor it, you don't want to wreck your opening lines, but get in something so we get a little sense of how old. So you might, instead of 20 years, you might say, something like, maybe even 20 years, her whole life or something. You'd have to find a way to not be clunky about it, which is hard to do in thin air. It's easier to do on paper, but you do know what it means so that we're, what you want, one of our audience members mentioned that a good hook raises our curiosity and we want to know what happens next. What the kinda questions you don't want the reader to be asking is, wait, I don't get it? Or wait, what does that mean? Or wait, what? Or wait, how old? Like a second you do that they're out, like same with actually writing. The second the person's out of your world and your context, you've lost them, so you wanna, the questions you want to have raised in their head are not those kinda questions. So whatever you can do to smooth that over, that would be great, but I think that you're on a great path. It sounds like a fantastic adventure. So what genre would you call that? (woman sighs)
I'm not really sure. (woman laughs)
That's okay. Yeah, that's another thing I would look at, because Young Adult is typically, well, it's a little fuzzy, by it's typically like 13 to and usually it's the younger age looking at the older age, like an 18-year-old protagonist would appeal to 15, 16, 17. That being said, adults love YA as well, because it's fun to go back to that time and think about that, but it's 18 is kind of on the edge, because it's not really adult, it's not really child, so I would think about that and dig into the genre, other books like it, how old, 'cause you might want to tweak the protagonist a little, up or down, so that's another thing I would look at too, but awesome job! And thank you for sharing. (audience applauds) See that wasn't so bad. Does somebody else want to try? Oh, come on you guys! Okay, brave soul, needs the microphone.
So I have a nonfiction and I'm not sure quite how--
That's perfect, we want a nonfiction.
Okay, all right. So 98% of us learn to be less creative, from the time we hit elementary school to when we're in our 20s. As writers, we want to create imaginative stories, so the good news is we can learn to be more creative. See I don't know where to go from there. We can learn to be more creative. Follow this book, no, not follow this book. Basically the book has activities and stories based on research on how to relearn to be more creative.
Awesome. Okay, can you read your first part again or say your first part, just the first line.
Okay. 98% of us learn to be less creative, from the time we hit elementary school to when we're in our 20s.
Okay, that's awesome. So that's great, a great beginning. I would work harder on what I call the so what. That's my favorite question. There's two questions I ask 9 million times a day. One is why? One is so what? So, so what? Like that's a great fact. It's super interesting. It's super true. I believe it in my bones, but so what? So you want to get in that next, you want to bake it into that first line, why should we care about that? What does that mean? Remember I talked before about the pain? So what's your ideal reader's pain around that? Like so what if they're not more creative? And I think there's huge ramifications for that, but you need to tell us why you're thinking that, what it means to them, what your book is gonna do to help them around that. So I don't know what that is. Is that be more creative just because it makes for a richer life? Is it be more creative, because it'll make you more awesome in your day job? Is it be more creative because you'll be a better parent? Do you know what I mean? There's like a million ways it could go, so what way would it go?
Well, I guess that's a question I still have, right? Because there is research to show that the more creative we are, the more successful life we have. But this book is also specifically geared towards writers, so I'm not sure (laughs) what that would be.
Okay, so this is such a great example. I love it. Thank you so much for sharing this, because it let's us talk about, do you see how the vagueness and the not sureness totally kills you? So you want to be doing this strategic thinking right from the start, because you can answer that question and write a fantastic book, if you know who it's for and why should they care. Why should they matter? And if you can hone in on that, you know like there's all these books about happiness, like the Happiness Project or Stumbling on Happiness, or maybe it's in the happiness genre like, hey, actually the way is to be more creative. Or, if it's for writers, it's like, hey, maybe you're stuck because the creativity got totally squeezed out of you and so, but then that's for writers who are stuck. Do you see how, you hone in on that ideal reader, and without it, you're kinda just wandering in space and that's just the death knell for a book, a query, a project. You've gotta be specific and strategic. And then what I would do is I would really dig into the people speaking in that space. Like I immediately think of Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic. And I think of The War of Art. And I think of, like comp titles come into my brain and that's the way agents are thinking, that's the way that publishers are thinking. It's like, oh, this is like a Big Magic, but for people who are stuck. Or this is like Big Magic, but for young women or whatever your thing is. You wanna really place it in that context of the whole world. Does that make sense?
Do you see where to go forward from there?
I do. Thank you.
And are there other nonfiction writers in the room who get that? Who see it's the same thing, remember I said it's the same for fiction? You've gotta be specific, you gotta be intentional. Okay, so I think we have time for maybe one or two more, so does anybody else wanna give it a go? It's not that bad. Somebody? How about one of the men in the room? I'm just callin' out the men in the room. (audience laughs) And I'm looking at you Damon, because you told me your idea before class and it was so cool. Tell us just like the one liner about your book.
You know, most folks practice yoga, or most folks who do practice yoga, practice yoga on a mat, but there's so much more to yoga than just what's on a mat, because it's the mind not just the body.
That was awesome! That was awesome. (audience applauds)
If you say so, Jennie. (all laugh)
So Damon, here's what I love about that. You started to get in a piece, tell me your name again.
I'm sorry, you.
Oh, me? I'm Sonja.
Sonja, that's Sonja, I said well, so what? You had a little of the so what? So, okay, most people practice yoga. It's like, okay, yeah. (Jennie laughs) And then you say, but yoga's so much more than what you do on a mat. Now I'm thinking, wait it is? Remember I said when we were speaking, you want the questions raised in your reader's head to be about the curiosity on the topic, not like, wait, what's he talking about? So I'm like, wait, it is? What does that look like? What does that mean? I should know about that. You're starting to get into that so what piece, but I would love to see you break that out even more. Like how can it change my life? How can it deepen my practice? So who do you think your ideal reader might be?
People who do want to live the highest quality life possible. There's a quote. I can't remember who it's by, but it goes something like, "If you fix your mind, the rest of your life will fall into place." So yoga's about correcting the mind and that's what we do.
That's beautiful. So there's so many books on yoga. You'd want to dig in and see, okay, what are they? Who are they for? There's also so many books on mindfulness, so you'd want to look at those and put your book sort of in the middle. And don't put this in a query letter, but you have the most beautiful voice. I would love to listen to an audio book by (laughs) you. (audience laughs)
When I say, don't put that in the query letter, that would be like one of those gimmicks, you know. I'm just saying you have a beautiful voice. So, I would get strategic about that. Who exactly is this for? How exactly is it gonna help them? What's their pain? Maybe, have they done yoga, but they need to go deeper? Are they into practice but they want to learn another? Like, who exactly is that person? And if you can nail that down, you're gonna have something really awesome.
That was a great start though.
Thank you, I appreciate that. (audience applauds)
You gotta think like an entrepreneur to find an agent. You really have to get in your head that you're marketing something and it's a product. You've gotta have that strategic pitch plan, which is who you're gonna pitch to, how you're gonna go out to them, what you're gonna do. You've gotta prepare your pitch materials and they've gotta be perfect. So, just like Abby did, push'em and push'em and push'em until they're just right. And hone that query letter because it's your calling card. It's the one job of it is to get them to request pages, so it's gotta be great. The more time you spend on it the better. So when you go out to a conference or anything, you've got that just really dialed in. And then if you've got all of those things in place, you're gonna be able to pitch with confidence. You're gonna be able to not be guessing or wondering or wringing your hands. You're gonna know who you're pitching to. You're gonna know what you're pitching. You're gonna know what the universe of that book is like, the shelf it's gonna go on, and you're gonna be able to go out there and do it. And I hope, you guys, all do it and land your favorite top-tier agent. (audience applauds)
Jennie, where can we all find you? Where can we followup with you?
You can find me at jennienash.com is my website and I also run Author Accelerator, which is a business that pairs book coaches with writers to help them to do all this hard work of getting it right and getting it on the page. And we give you support and feedback and cheerleading while you go. So find me there. I'd love to hear from you guys